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Antarctica’s once sleepy ice sheets have awoken. That’s bad

By Mark Kaufman From Mashable

Antarctic iceberg

BY MARK KAUFMAN 2019-01-14 20:01:00 UTC

Antarctica — home to the greatest ice sheets on Earth — isn’t just melting significantly faster than it was decades ago. Great masses of ice that scientists once presumed were largely immune to melting are losing ample ice into the sea. 

In a study published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers illustrate that the ice-clad continent is losing more than six times as much ice as it was in the 1980s. A “major contributor,” the scientists emphasize, are the glaciers in East Antarctica, a place long overshadowed by the rapidly melting glaciers of West Antarctica. They found East Antarctica has contributed about 20 percent of the melting in the last 10 years — which is no small amount.

“People are beginning to recognize that East Antarctica might be waking up,” Josh Willis, an oceanographer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory that visits and measures Earth’s melting glaciers, said in an interview. 

“There’s growing evidence that eastern Antarctica is not just going to stay frozen and well-behaved in the next 50 to 100 years,” Willis, who had no role in the study, said. 

This builds on other recent, emerging evidence that East Antartica isdestabilizing as it sheds more ice into the sea.

Areas where Antarctica is more rapidly losing ice.
Areas where Antarctica is more rapidly losing ice.

Overall, Antarctica is now losing tremendous, nearly unimaginable quantities of ice into the ocean each year — the brunt of which still comes from West Antartica. Using satellite data to measure how much snow is accumulating on the land versus how much is flowing away, the researchers found Antarctica lost 40 gigatons of ice in the 1980s. For reference, a single gigaton is equivalent to 1 billion metric tons — and there are about 2,200 pounds in a single metric ton. 

But fast forward to the last decade, and Antarctica lost around 252 gigatons of ice, or over 2.5 trillion metric tons, between 2009 and 2017, according to this most recent study.  

These numbers may be massive, but they’re “in line with” equally profound ice loss numbers that came out last year, noted Stef Lhermitte, a geoscientist at the Netherlands’ Delft University of Technology who had no role in the study, said over email. That grand research project — put together by 40 Earth sciences agencies including NASA, the European Space Agency, and the National Snow and Ice Data Center — found Antarctica had shed nearly 3 trillion tons of ice over the last 25 years.  

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